Cowboys out of balance and out of sorts

BY foxsports • September 18, 2012

There is no question that this game was going to be a fantastic test for the offense when the special teams portion of the squad put the Cowboys in a tremendous hole. Any time special teams concedes 10 points before anyone has broken a sweat, then the tendency will be for the offense to scrap their entire game plan and turn the game into a 55-minute version of the 2-minute drill.

And from following this offense from a perspective of trying to understand their objectives based on their actions, it appears that the achilles heel with the current edition of the Dallas Cowboys - going back now through 5 seasons of data - is a loss of patience in both play-calling and execution.  

When patience is lost, so is the game-plan of balance, staying ahead of schedule, and allowing DeMarco Murray to set the tone in the contest.  It is replaced with playing the game out of shotgun, never allowing your offensive line to do anything but pass protect, with each incompletion falling further behind the chains, and then inviting blitzes in passing situations.

It begins to roll steadily down hill the later it gets in a game, and it is a recipe of disaster the Cowboys have fallen into several times a year since we have done this study.

There are times, by the way, to properly drop your game-plan in the trash.  Last year at Philadelphia and the year before at Green Bay, the game had fallen out of control quickly and there was no sense handing the ball off and balancing things up when you are down 3 touchdowns in the second quarter.  

But, Sunday, while playing a team that had no offensive explosiveness whatsoever, the Cowboys got into trouble because they needed to catch up immediately, not realizing that they only trailed 13-7 with an entire half of football to play.  Throw on 1st, throw on 2nd, and throw on 3rd led to a punt.  Then a throw on 1st on the next possession, lose yards on the flare to Felix Jones, which sets up a throw on 2nd and long, and 3rd and long.  This is not the recipe for success.

Of course, in this space, we don't want to fall into the trap of criticizing a particular play-call.  A play-caller must be given the freedom to take a chance and defy tendencies and conventional wisdom on a play by play basis.  But, the overall game-plan is where our focus lies, because there is one type of game that the Cowboys never win.  It is when they fall way out of balance in their offense and allow the defense to simply sit on the passing game.  When, the Cowboys do this, they almost always lose.

They only ran the ball 15 times on Sunday, while passing 41.  Yet, they were only out of the game when the Seahawks scored in the fourth quarter to go up 27-7.  Before that, they had plenty of time to simply sustain a drive.  They just lost the plot.  And when they fall that far out of balance (fewer than 18 runs, more than 35 passes) they have 1 win in the history of the franchise all time, which they accomplished in Detroit in December of 2007.  1 time.  Since 1960.

In fact, since the 2008 season began, they have a 1-19 record in games like Sunday, when they fall out of balance even less dramatically.  We normally assume each game will have roughly 60 offensive plays.  Under that premise, we will call out of balance to be fewer than 25 runs.  If they run 25 or fewer run plays while passing 35 or more times out of 60, they lose almost every single time. Check the list for yourself by clicking right here, and find that the 1 game out of 20 that they won was the overtime miracle win in San Francisco last September.  25 runs out of 60 is simply keeping your percentage of run/pass to 42/58%.  This is the line.  If the Cowboys fall below 26 carries in a game, they lose under Jason Garrett.  

Now, in football, there are many discussions about balancing your offense and whether it is an antiquated premise.  Essays have been written and studies have been completed saying it isn't how it used to be and you don't "run to win", instead you "win to run", furthering the idea that running happens as you kill the clock near the end of the game because you are ahead.

But, in being an eye-witness to these many games on the list, we see that there are many occasions where the Cowboys were just reluctant to run because either they thought they couldn't, they did not experience success early, or they just were uncomfortable committing to the idea.  Passing the ball is too tempting when Tony Romo is your QB.  But, are the Cowboys good at slinging the ball around the yard like Tom Brady or Drew Brees?  Can they win when they don't run at all to occupy the thoughts of linebackers and safeties?


Meanwhile, let's run the numbers again.  This time, we don't change the numbers, we simply change the equations on the "greater than" to "less than".  What are the results when the Cowboys stay balanced, force the defense to respect both threats, and run at least 25 times, while passing fewer than 35 times?  Click here to see that list of games.


Whoa.  1-19 (5% win percentage) versus 22-3 (88%).  I think we may have some sort of theory here on how the Cowboys are most effective as an offense.

I think Jason Garrett is a great offensive mind.  I think he has considered all of these aspects and I am sure he would explain these findings in a perfectly logical way.  I assume he knows the numbers of what happens when his team falls out of balance, and I would imagine he is aware of what a weapon DeMarco Murray truly is.  

So, why, does this repeatedly happen on road games where a little bit of play-calling patience might be the remedy?  Twenty examples of this type of game in just over four seasons says this happens nearly five times a season.  If we concede that they were being blown out early fewer than five times, then the rest of these are simply because the offensive philosophy is just not demonstrating the patience and understanding that it is a four-quarter game that can be won if the team just shows that if they meet resistance in the second quarter, they won't abandon their game plan.  

The opponents know these trends. They want to know why the Cowboys lose when they lose.  How do you beat Garrett and Romo?  Well, assuming they have a computer and can run these numbers, too, they know that the Cowboys can be chased out of running the ball early.  Why not help them along that road by walking an 8th man into the box.  Make them pass.  And then, like Seattle did, bringing a safety down makes the Cowboys 1-dimensional.  When that happens, the blitz is unleashed.  Seattle blitzed 10 times on Sunday, with 8 coming against the shotgun offense.  Shotgun, in the case of the Cowboys, actually invites more pressure than most imagine.  Then, it comes down to whether Romo and his receivers can make great plays in tight windows or not.  Seattle was a great example of what happens when those plays are not made.  

7 points and fewer than 300 yards offense.  

Data from Week 2 at Seattle

Run-Pass 15-41
Field Position
1st Down
Down Avg Distance to
Down Avg Distance to
Down Conversions

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The 2nd half shows that their were just too few plays run.  Success out to the left side on a regular basis, but they simply never had the ball nor could they extend drives at all.  

2nd Half

Intern Tim, who does a fine job on these charts, made one especially on passes to Jason Witten.  A shocking day that serves to demonstrate how great a career Witten has had.  He has earned a mulligan, but that is really tough afternoon for the Cowboys most dependable player.  

Jason Witten

Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan.  How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline?  We track it each week here:

Wk 1-At New York:  9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass Wk 2-At Seattle:  9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Season:  18 Drives  8 Run/10 Pass

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass  44% Run


Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill.  But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it.  They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game.  When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated.  High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.

As you can see, the situation in the game dictates the use of shotgun.  The Cowboys use "Shotgun 11" as their "catch-up" mode and the more they run it, usually the worse the game is going.  

Wk 1 - NYJ:  15/54  27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea:  29/56  52%

Season Total:  44/110 40%
2011 Total - 445/1012  43.9%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Let's look at the running plays out of 21 and 22.  10 carries for 40 yards suggest that they were finding success there, but it was in small amounts.  They lacked the big gainer that they had last week, but as we know with Murray, he wears teams down.  It might come on his 19th carry.  What if he only gets the ball 14 times?

In New York, 21 personnel was dominant.  13 snaps for 193 yards was off the charts.  But, this week, a very mediocre 9 plays for 18 yards including 4 passes for 1 yard.  Yikes.

22 personnel has had 11 snaps this season and 11 runs.  That is telling us that they are 100% run out of a grouping that never is 80/20 run usually.  They have some pass out of 22 up their sleeve for down the road.  Look for that.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

Package Plays

Yards Run Pass
11 4 5 1-1 3-4
12 7 46 2-7 5-39
13 1 0 0-0 1-0
21 9 18 5-17 4-1
22 5 23 5-23 0-0
23 1 1 1-1 0-0
S01 2 18 0-0 2-18
S02 0 0 0-0 0-0
S11 26 176 0-0 26-176
S12 1 8 0-0 1-8
Knee 1 0 1-0 0-0
Totals 57 295 15-49 41-246

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Package Plays Yards Run Pass FD/TD
11 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
13 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
21 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
22 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
23 1 1 1-1 0-0 1/0
S01 2 18 0-0 2-18 1/0
S10 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
S11 10 85 0-0 10-85 5/0
S12 0 0 0-0 0-0 0/0
Totals 13 104 1-1 12-103 7/0

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